Showing Some Initiative

A citizen-led coalition kicked off the public phase of a National Heritage Area study in the St. Croix River region last weekend. Residents are invited to participate in several upcoming workshops.




6 minute read

Many Waters, Many StoriesThere were more than 1,000 years of St. Croix River-area residence represented at Paradise Landing on the south shore of Balsam Lake in Polk County, Wisc. last Saturday morning. The occasion was the first of 11 Heritage Discovery Workshops scheduled around the region over the next few months.

During Saturday’s three-hour workshop, the people who made up that thousand years of experience were briefed on the project, discussed what makes the area special in small groups, and reconvened to share the results of their group discussions and look for common threads.

The objective of the workshops is to determine if people and communities in the St. Croix River-area are interested in seeking National Heritage Area designation for the region. The meetings are being hosted by the Heritage Initiative, which is led by a volunteer task force and convened by the St. Croix Valley Foundation. (I am currently working with the Initiative as a part-time communications consultant.)

“Many Waters, Many Stories, One Special Place”

Workshop attendees talk about what makes the St. Croix River region special for them.
Workshop attendees talk about what makes the St. Croix River region special for them. (Photo courtesy Bill Nueman, Heritage Initiative Task Force.)

After introductions, task force chair Marty Harding of St. Croix Falls gave a short presentation about National Heritage Areas and the work of the Initiative. She explained the Initiative’s slogan, “Many Waters, Many Stories, One Special Place” summed up their work:

  • The many lakes and rivers in the area define it and tie it together with water;
  • everywhere you turn, someone has an interesting story to tell;
  • those elements together unify it into a unique and cherished region.

Harding said there are many potential benefits to communities from Heritage Area designation, like economic growth, partnerships, and preservation. She stated that she is personally most excited about the possibility of teaching students and children just how special of a place their home is, and to instill a sense of pride that will make them want to take care of it.

Harding explained there are 49 Heritage Areas around the country, and that the Heritage Initiative is looking into whether it might be a good fit for the region in Minnesota and Wisconsin around the St. Croix. The Initiative’s task force is made up of citizens from throughout the 8,000 square miles which are united by the St. Croix River and its tributaries. They aren’t advocating for a Heritage Area, but are seeking to facilitate community discussions.

Home is where the stories are

Facilitator Tom Borrup welcomes participants to the Heritage Discovery Workshop.
Facilitator Tom Borrup welcomes participants to the Heritage Discovery Workshop. (Photo courtesy Bill Nueman.)

After Harding’s presentation, about half of the morning was dedicated to discussing stories about Polk County and looking for common themes that define the area.

Attendees sat at small tables, with an Initiative volunteer taking notes, and spoke of family legacies, monuments in small towns and ancestral homes. They talked about the area’s varying and dramatic geology, the waters — the wild St. Croix, the many lakes and rivers big and small — and shared knowledge of out-of-the-way museums, annual community festivals, and characters from the past.

I think most people who live in the St. Croix River region would agree that this place is pretty special. We love it here. But what is it that makes our region unique? What combination of places, history, and humanity makes it what it is? And what about this place is important to our country as a whole? These are the questions the Heritage Initiative is asking.

When the groups reported on their discussions to the full workshop, they didn’t recite all the stories, but the topics. It was things like

  • logging history,
  • Ojibwe culture,
  • geology,
  • wildlife,
  • immigrant experiences,
  • historic towns amid rural landscapes,
  • and railroads.

It was a description of the place we call home.

A bounty of stories

Telling stories about why the St. Croix River region is special.
Telling stories about why the St. Croix River region is special. (Photo courtesy Bill Nueman.)

There were big maps of the whole watershed on each table. Attendees marked sites of interest; someone drew in Lake Wapogassett, explaining that an archaeology project had uncovered Native American artifacts on the lake dating to 2,500 B.C. Another man added that Reader’s Digest magazine was conceived on the shores of the lake.

A reporter from the Inter-County Leader, Gregg Westigard, of Frederic, Wisc. attended. He told me he had recently covered for his newspaper the entire process of creating Wisconsin’s newest state park, Straight Lake. He said he and his wife go walking there now and marvel at a bog filled with pitcher plants.

Table five reported they talked about the region’s history as “cutover country,” wiped clean by the timber companies and abandoned. They believed that such history needed to be remembered. The same table also talked about the Fourth of July celebration in Little Falls, a small town with a long tradition of marking the holiday in a big way.

The stories kept coming. As I reviewed my notes afterwards and went looking for more information about a few of the topics, I discovered something wonderful. Most of the stories that were mentioned are almost impossible to find anything about on the Internet. These are not the things written about on Wikipedia, or even on tourism websites. These are the stories, places and traditions that live in the community, passed down from previous generations.

People at the workshop told about the ferries that once moved people and cargo across the region’s rivers; the many forms of outdoor recreation that draw both residents and visitors, such as skiing, hiking and dining; the fur trade, which once saw at least three trading posts in the area; wild rice and other natural bounty; natural wonders like the glacial esker in St. Croix Falls; the Scandinavian immigrants that settled the area and are often still represented by old churches, festivals, and surnames; the old battles between the Ojibwe and Dakota for control of the region; the ox road at Clam Falls; the railroads that, along with the rivers, provided transportation and connected the region to the rest of the nation; the wild nature of the rivers today, with extremely little development on their banks; and the arts and cultural centers, like the Festival Theater in St. Croix Falls and the Northern Lights Center for the Arts in Amery.

And that’s an incomplete list of just one session in one county.


A collection of stories, however, does not make a National Heritage Area. There need to be a few key elements:

  1. Common threads that tie together the region.
  2. A story or stories of national significance. Something that connects the region to American history and culture.
  3. Resources already present in the region, like historical sites, festivals, nonprofits, museums or other ways to directly experience the area’s heritage.
  4. An interest in partnerships amongst people, communities, and organizations to leverage the region’s assets.

There seemed to be a lot of interest in seeking Heritage Area status on Saturday. People saw the potential for economic benefits, increased tourism and other regional marketing efforts, building pride in the region and its assets, and instilling a sense of responsibility for its stewardship in citizens young and old.

There is a lot of work yet to be done before we might see a National Heritage Area here. The 11 Heritage Discovery Workshops will continue through May and will be followed by four regional summits around the area this fall, which will focus on identifying important themes and potential strategies for establishing a Heritage Area.

A map of the region showing locations of stories that were shared last Saturday.
A map of the St. Croix River region showing locations of stories that were shared last Saturday.

Ultimately, next year a draft document will be issued for public input. It will summarize the workshops and be discussed at a region-wide Heritage Summit. At that point, the Heritage Initiative and interested citizens and communities will decide whether or not to move forward in seeking National Heritage Area designation, and if so, how to do it.

Join the conversation

If you want to attend a Heritage Discovery Workshop in your community this winter or spring, check out the schedule and make sure to R.S.V.P. The next events generally take place on Saturday mornings: February 25 in North Branch, Minn.; March 3 in River Falls, Wisc.; and March 10 in New Richmond, Wisc. More will be scheduled soon.

Other ways to keep in touch:


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One response to “Showing Some Initiative”

  1. […] month ago, I wrote about the Heritage Initiative‘s first Heritage Discovery Workshop, in Balsam Lake, Wisconsin. The […]


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Showing Some Initiative